Credentials, academic and professional, have begun to seem like secular sacraments. While our parish records have entries for baptism, confirmation and marriage, our resumes and HR files have entries for degrees, certificates and licenses. They form our identities, signify our maturation and confer on us the secular equivalent of grace: bourgeois respectability.
As Catholics think and talk and write about how to live in a post-modern, post-liberal, post-Christian America, rejecting credential worship is an essential starting point — especially for parents. Our witness to our communities, and more importantly to our children, is neutered when we hold out academic and professional credentials as first-order goods.
We can begin by deemphasizing college, especially the college admission process. Success in this years-long meat-grinder of tests and interviews and road trips is popularly considered the sine qua non of bourgeois good parenting. Timed with the waning of adolescence, our culture regards the college experience as the quality control process for the products of family life.
This is a pernicious way of thinking that replaces the pursuit of goodness with the pursuit of respectability and the Holy Trinity with an admissions committee. We should instill in our children something between an annoyed tolerance and an enthusiastic contempt for the entire enterprise.
This isn’t to say that we should reject college altogether. College can and, when appropriate, should be a worthy goal for young people, but it must be clearly presented as a second-order goal. There is real value in the bourgeois virtues of study, preparation, and hard work, but the value of these disciplines is in their relation to developing in virtue and love of the truth, not to college applications or any other synthetic concern. We are to raise our children not to be good students, good applicants, or good workers, but just to be good. We should be preparing them to get into Heaven, not Harvard.
When Catholic parents use Getting Into A Good School (even if it’s a Good Catholic School) as a motivator for everything from academics to athletics to “community service,” we embrace a cultural norm that is just as corrosive to the faith as any innovation in the understanding of marriage and sexuality. Indeed it is more corrosive, because “respectability” now contains within itself all those innovations we abhor, and want our children to abhor.
Countercultural Catholic witness, especially passed down within a family, must be comprehensive, or it will fail. We must discard the polarized lens of the “culture war,” which filters out those threats to the faith that don’t neatly fit a particular and outdated political narrative. We can’t rail against same-sex marriage and abortion on demand on Tuesday, then wax poetic about the importance of getting into a top-tier school on Wednesday, and expect our emerging adults (or anyone else) to see this as a coherent response to an ailing civilization. It is senseless to condemn respectable evils such as abortion and fornication, then to urge our children to submit themselves for judgment to the gatekeepers of respectability.
We do our children no favors by implicitly passing down to them the fiction that American respectability and the radicalism of the gospel are compatible. This irreconcilable tension is an unfair burden to place on young adults; it is furthermore a tension that will be, understandably, resolved more often than not in favor of the comfortable safety of respectability.
Our duty is to train ourselves and subsequent generations to see through the smokescreen of respectability to discern the authentic value of our pursuits. We can examine our motives by sincerely asking: To what end? To what end am I encouraging my daughter to take AP physics, or to join the school newspaper, or to apply to Princeton? Is it to pursue truth, or to develop a virtue, or to grow in the faith? Or is it to fulfill an arbitrary requirement, to pad a resume, to create future financial opportunities — in short, to do what members of our class are supposed to do?
Subordinating credentials to the kingdom is a rejection neither of education nor of socialization but of the elevation of bourgeois respectability to an intrinsic good. More importantly and more beautifully, it is an affirmation to our children that they need not fear the judgment of the world, because neither do we.
Brandon McGinley is a 2010 graduate of Princeton University. He is a writer and editor in Pittsburgh.